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The UAW Just Challenged the Entire Labor Movement to Get More Ambitious

By Hamilton Nolan - In These Times, November 30, 2023

Regular people who are not directly involved in the labor movement often find it hard to get interested in stuff that is happening at unions. Here is the short chain of reasoning I use to explain why they should care: What is the biggest underlying problem in America? Inequality. What is the single most potent and plausible weapon against inequality? Labor unions. What do labor unions need to do to actually roll back inequality in a way that would improve your life? They need to organize millions of new working people. 

So while it is understandable that the average person who is not in a union sees the topic of ​“union organizing” as some esoteric niche unrelated to them, that is not the case. This is the path to fix the whole fucking country. When people feel like this doesn’t affect them, well — that’s just an indicator of the problem.

The next question in this chain is: What will it take for unions to organize at the scale that we need? There are some practical answers to this question — it will take money, it will take organizers, it will take a structure conducive to keeping the money flowing towards organizing. But there is a more basic answer, that captures what has been lacking during the post-Reagan decades of declining union power: It will take ambition. Ambition!

Large parts of the union establishment still carry the sheepish look of a dog that has been beaten down for years. Living in a state of permanent decline, a life spent playing defense, has sapped them of the belief that things can be different. Their goals have gotten modest. Modest goals won’t get us where we need to go. We need to think big. The labor movement needs, before anything, genuine ambition for a new America. Rather than gazing at the scale of the problem and concluding that it is impossible, we need labor leaders who see their jobs as climbing mountains no matter how high they are. Ambition is the most precious quality of all.

That is why yesterday’s announcement from the United Auto Workers that they are launching a campaign to unionize more than a dozen non-union automakers at once is so important. The UAW knows that the biggest threats to its long term industrial power are the rise of big non-union auto companies like Tesla, and the fact that the auto industry has long been able to move plants to anti-union southern states in order to operate union-free. If left unchecked, those two trends will drain the UAW like a vampire, leaving it a hollow shell of a once-mighty institution. 

Hamilton Nolan is Labor’s BIG IDEAS Guy

The Climate Change Scoping Plan Must Directly Address the Concerns of Labor

By various - Labor Rise for Climate, Jobs, Justice, and Peace, July 14, 2022

We are writing to you as rank-and-file California trade unionists to request revision of the 2022 Draft Scoping Plan to incorporate the California Climate Jobs Plan based on “A Program for Economic Recovery and Clean Energy Transition in California.” 

While making frequent references to equity, the Draft Scoping Plan fails to present a credible roadmap for the massive economic and social transformation that will be required to protect and promote the interests of workers and communities as California confronts the climate crisis and emerges from the fossil fuel era.

Four years ago, United Nations scientists reported that it would take “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to limit increasingly catastrophic changes to the global climate. Among these rapid and far-reaching changes, the redesign of our economy requires an honest accounting and plan for the tens of millions of California workers whose lives will be changed dramatically in this decade and beyond. If there is to be a plan for transformation, it must center the aspirations and possibilities for working people. 

In this aspect, the Draft Scoping Plan falls short. Labor is treated as an externality. The draft lacks any discussion of public funding to create green jobs or protect workers and communities who depend on fossil fuel industries for their livelihood. The only union mentioned in the 228-page draft is the European Union. The draft’s abstract commitments to a job-rich future are based on crude economic modeling rather than concrete planning. We need more than vague assurances that economic growth guided by corporate interests will provide for the common good.

Unions Making a Green New Deal From Below: Part 2

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, June 2022

This second of two commentaries on “Unions Making a Green New Deal from Below” portrays what it looks like when unions in a town decide to create a local Green New Deal or when unions in a state decide to transform their economy to expand jobs and justice by protecting the climate.

Workers and unions are among those who have the most to gain by climate protection that produces good jobs and greater equality. That’s why unions in the most diverse industries and occupations are creating their own Green New Deal-type programs in localities around the country. Here are some examples:

Are Refinery Workers Climate Enemies? - Part 2

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, May 25, 2022

For context and background, see part one, here. Unlike the first installment, this second response has ommitted the comments that preciptated it, for the sake of clarity, as well as the fact that the author tried to echo the rebutted points in the response. It should be noted that only one individual has expressed outright opposition to showing solidarity with striking refinery workers. It's a foregone conclusion that the overwhelming majority of the IWW does not share this one individual's view.

First of all, let me be clear: my position is that humanity must collectively phase out burning fossil fuels for energy, transportation, and locomotion as rapidly as possible.

That said, nobody seriously believes we can collectively cease burning fossil fuels in a single day, so the likelihood is that the burning of them will continue for some time (I aim to make that as little time as possible).

Regardless of how long it takes, no oil refinery is going to simply shut down just because large masses of people, even 3.5% of the population demand it. It’s not even technically possible, let alone economically or politically possible. Most of the Environmental Justice and Climate Justice organizations (other than a few ultra-sectarian extremists) get this, and they’ve crafted their demands accordingly.

While there’s a degree of variation among the various organizing, most of them call for the following:

  1. No new extraction of new fossil fuel sources;
  2. Rapid phase out of existing fossil fuel sources;
  3. Managed decline of the existing fossil fuel supply chain;
  4. Just transition for any and all affected workers in the entire fossil fuel supply chain;
  5. Repurposing of equipment for non fossil fuel burning purposes;
  6. Bioremediation of damaged ecosystems across the extraction supply chain;
  7. Reparations for the affected communities and tribes.

Supporting refinery workers involved in a strike is not in any way contradictory to the above demands.

Webinar: Investing in Workers for a World Beyond Fossil Fuels

Are Refinery Workers Climate Enemies?

By an anonymous ex-member of the IWW (with a response by Steve Ongerth) - ecology.iww.org, April 28, 2022

Editor's Note: Since Monday, March 21, 2022, the workers at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, members of the United Steelworkers Local 5 have been on strike and picketing the facility after voting down the company’s latest contract offer, which workers say contained insufficient wage increases and demanded cuts in union staffing that focused on health and safety in the refinery. The bosses have responded by bringing in scabs (including managers from other Chevron facilities). Meanwhile, USW Local 5 members have been picketing the refinery 24-7, and have been, at times, joined by members of the local BIPOC and/or environmental justice community. After IWW EUC cofounder and long-time Bay Area IWW General Membership Branch member, Steve Ongerth, brought a call for solidarity with the striking workers to the April branch meeeting, a disgruntled member (who has since resigned from the organization), sent the following letter to the branch (name deleted for privacy reasons).

Message from a Disgruntled (former) Member:

I’m sorry to say how disappointed I am in the IWW. I’m a relatively new wobbly and although I believe in standing in solidarity with fellow workers it seems at some point lines must be drawn.

As I’ve read through these last emails about the USW Local 5 and the call to action for us to stand with them as they strike, many questions come to mind. The first one is what if fellow climate activists, many of whom are wobblies were to implement a protest blockade to stall production of this refinery in defense of the environment? I wonder if those refinery workers with whom we are picketing would come outside and join our protest line? I also wonder if they would be interested in the invitation to join the 2022 Global Climate Strike that you forwarded to us? In both cases I assume it is reasonable to conclude they would not.

As wobblies, where do we draw the line? What if oil pipeline workers go to strike for hazard pay because a tribal nation, whose land the pipeline is planned to cross blocks safe access to thier jobsite in protest of the poisoning of thier waterways? Would the IWW Environmental Caucus also put a call out to picket with those Union workers? We draw the line when it comes to police unions who’s membership is hellbent on beating and imprisoning people protesting civil injustices. Why are we supporting refinery workers? This makes no sense. Iunderstand that just about every industry is to some degree tainted with These workers primary job is to process and prepare for market the product that’s catapulted us into the current global warming apocalyptic meltdown!

TESTIMONY: Alabama's Warrior Met Coal and Wall Street Greed

By Braxton Wright - Facing South, April 20, 2022

This month marks one year since 1,100 members of the United Mine Workers of America went on strike at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama following the failure of the union and company to agree on a labor contract. The strike continues today.

Warrior Met was created to buy the assets of Walter Energy after that company declared bankruptcy in 2015. A number of hedge funds own shares in Warrior Met, with New York-based BlackRock — the world's largest asset manager — controlling the most, at about 13% at the end of 2021.

Earlier this year, Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) held a hearing on Wall Street greed and growing oligarchy in the United States that used Warrior Met as a case study. Sanders invited the CEO of BlackRock to appear at the hearing, along with those from two other hedge funds and Warrior Met, but they all declined to testify.

When Warrior Met was facing bankruptcy, workers agreed to an across-the-board wage cut of 20% along with cuts to their health care and retirement benefits as part of a restructuring deal made by the private equity firms, saving the company an estimated $1.1 billion over the past five years. Since 2017, Warrior Met has paid over $1.5 billion in dividends to its shareholders while paying its CEO over $4 million per year.

"Yet, now that the company has returned to profitability and has seen its stock price skyrocket by 250% during the pandemic, Warrior Met has offered its workers an insulting $1.50 raise over five years and has refused to restore the health care and pension benefits that were taken away from them five years ago," Sanders said in a statement announcing the hearing. "Outrageously and unacceptably, the company has also demanded the power to fire workers who engage in their constitutional right to strike and give seniority to new hires, rather than miners who have given their adult lives to Warrior Met."

Among those who spoke at the hearing was Braxton Wright, a Warrior Met miner and striking UMWA member. He called on lawmakers to support the "Stop Wall Street Looting Act," a measure sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, both Democrats, to help to reform the private equity industry and to give employee compensation higher priority in bankruptcies. This is Wright's written testimony from the hearing.

Green Unionism on the Chevron Richmond Refinery Workers Picket Line

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, April 15, 2022

Since Monday, March 21, 2022, the workers at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, members of the United Steelworkers Local 5 have been on strike and picketing the facility after voting down the company’s latest contract offer, which workers say contained insufficient wage increases. The bosses have responded by bringing in scabs (including managers from other Chevron facilities). The strike has gotten a good deal of media coverage:

However, the capitalist (and progressive) media have mostly missed some important details.

First of all, the striking refinery workers and their elected union leaders continue to emphasize that their issues extend beyond narrow bread and butter issues, such as wages and benefits. A major concern that they continue to articulate is that Chevron continues to try and cut unionized safety jobs and refuses to hire sufficient workers to safely and adequately staff the facility. Workers have complained of 12-hour days and six-day workweeks. All of these deficiencies not only risk the health and safety of the workers, but the surrounding, mostly BIPOC communities as well. Worse still, they have adverse environmental effects, a problem that hasn't been lost on the striking workers. As stated by USW Local 5 representative, B.K White:

“If we had more people and could get a better pay rate, maybe our members wouldn’t feel obligated to come in and work as many as 70 hours a week to make ends meet. We don’t believe that is safe. (that and the use of replacement workers) is at the detriment of the city of Richmond and the environment.”

Even less noticed by the media has been the presence of environmental justice activists (including, but not limited to, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, Extinction Rebellion, Fossil Free California, Richmond Progressive Alliance, Sierra Club, Sunflower Alliance, Sunrise Movement, and 350), various socialist organizations (including DSA in particular), and members from the nearby front-line BIPOC communities, who have joined the pickets in solidarity with the workers, something the workers have also not hesitated to point out. Indeed, in spite of the fact that many environmental justice activists and community members are harshly critical of Chevron's role in turning the city of Richmond into a capital blight infested sacrifice zone, they recognize that the workers are not their enemies nor are the latter responsible for the damage done by the company. On the contrary, many recognize that the unionized workforce is one of the best mitigations against far worse capital blight (it bears mentioning that there has also been a good deal of support and picket line presence from rank and file workers and union officials from many other unions, including the AFSCME, IBEW, IWW, ILWU, SEIU, UFCW, and the Contra Costa County Central Labor Council).

Such seemingly unlikely bonds of solidarity, though delicate and, at times, fragile didn't arise out of thin air, but, in fact, have resulted from years of painstaking grassroots organizing.

One day longer. One day stronger. One year later

By Kim Kelly - The Real News, April 13, 2022

It was supposed to be a terrible day. Thousands of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) members and supporters were scheduled to convene in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, on the morning of April 6, 2022, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Warrior Met Coal strike. But, much like the coal bosses themselves, the forecast was not cooperating. The weather report, in typical fickle Alabama fashion, had been fluctuating between rain, more rain, and certain waterlogged doom; the union had bought ponchos in bulk to prepare. As UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said before the rally, “A little bad weather isn’t going to slow us down.”

By the time I arrived at Tannehill State Park that morning, I was fully prepared to spend my day stuck in the mud impersonating a drowned rat. I was not surprised to see that the day’s schedule had been moved up in a bid to outrun the rain. The original start time was slated for 11AM, but the rally was already in full swing by 10:30AM. Like all UMWA rallies, this one opened with a prayer, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the crowd hoping (or praying) that the universe would see fit to send us some good luck after all.

Buses were still arriving as speakers took the stage; according to an emailed UMWA press release, at least 1,200 UMWA members and retirees had bused in from Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, and they were joined by union members from across the South. It was a family reunion, with a greater purpose—when the call for solidarity went out, folks listened. They came to pay their respects by the hundreds, traveling across rivers and valleys and up from hills and hollers to be there alongside their afflicted siblings.

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